Put football in its place

As the Penn State University sexual abuse scandal unfolded in all its ugly detail, the entire “football culture” that drives many universities these days came under scrutiny for a minute or two. Then it stopped. Because certainly Jerry Sandusky’s crimes against an unknown number of boys, and an entire university administration’s looking the other way at the behest of the football coach, was an aberration, even in a system annually plagued with scandals.

The risk, however, is allowing the severity of the crimes to paint all the gambling, recruiting, grades and cheating scandals that are part and parcel of big college football as inconsequential. They are not. Those scandals are the “football culture” that has put athletics ahead of education at those big institutions.

NCAA President Mark Emmert, in announcing the many sanctions against Penn and its football program, said: “Our goal is not just to be punitive, but to make sure the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people.”

(The young people at Penn who needed to be protected weren’t students, of course, but young boys in the company of a man no longer employed by the university. And for the record, football wasn’t placed ahead of everything. Sandusky and head coach Joe Paterno placed themselves ahead of everything, including football.)

Emmert was praised for his quick action against Penn. He told ESPN.com that the NCAA has served notice that a win-at-all-costs mentality in major college football won’t be tolerated. But the Penn scandal didn’t have anything to do with “winning at all costs.” It had to do with sexual abuse, arrogance and unmitigated power. The NCAA served notice that pedophiles and those who might cover up their crimes will face huge sanctions. Fair enough.

But collegiate “football culture” (and basketball) remains the problem. Because football is, of course, placed ahead of education at many of the big money-making schools, the ones that win, and then are later hit with sanctions. Football is placed ahead of education when “student-athletes” are accepted to a school who are not academically qualified to be there. Football is placed ahead of education when graduation rates for “student athletes” don’t include drop outs or transfers. Football wins when benefactors only donate to athletic programs and not university academic programs. Football wins when schools hire scandal-tainted coaches with a winning, but tainted record.

The NCAA will send a real message about “winning at all costs” when it levels jaw-dropping sanctions against gambling, recruiting, cheating, et al scandals, instead of the usual slap on the wrist.

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